The night before my father died I had a dream that he had gone to see a new doctor who told him that he was going to have another heart attack. The next morning he called me at five o’clock to ask me to take the six-sixteen train out to Oceanside to stay with my mother, who was suffering from an ear infection; he said he’d pick me up at the station. I wanted to tell him about the dream, but instead I told him that I was too tired to take such an early train. I could have gone–I knew I wouldn’t be able to fall back to sleep–but I was twenty-three years old and struggling for my independence. I wanted to try to live my own life, miserable as it was, and I spent the three hours of freedom I had allotted myself, lying in bed, listening to the slow, even ticking of my alarm clock, waiting for the time to pass. How many times have I since imagined myself meeting him at the station, telling him, Please, Daddy. Don’t go to work. I had this dream.
“Mommy and I are both sick and trying to take care of each other and not doing a very good job of it,” he had told me on the phone that morning. He had been trying to get hold of me all night but as usual I was nowhere to be found.
“But, Daddy, how do you feel?” I asked.
“The same as usual,” he said.
The last time I had seen my father was two weeks before on Father’s Day. I had brought a friend out with me, something I seldom did, (my mother, who never liked any of my friends cornered me in the kitchen and asked me didn’t my friend have a father of her own?), and the only time I got to spend alone with him was when my friend went upstairs to call the father that she did in fact have. Daddy was lying on the couch in the living room, on his back, in that pose I so clearly remember–hands under his head, eyes open, staring at the ceiling, his tongue slowly exploring the surface of his teeth, occasionally straying to wiggle the bottom row of loose teeth, a game that had been a reliable source of amusement for me when I was a child. The couch was under the window then, still covered with the nubby green upholstery that my mother had gotten on sale at Gimbel’s when I was ten. I knelt beside him and asked him wasn’t he afraid to die.
“Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think it would be so bad,” he answered.
“But, Daddy, I love you so much,” I said and I buried my head on his delicate chest, which was ticking away like a time bomb.
“I know you do, darling,” he said. “But you’ll get over it.”
The train ride home to Oceanside in those days was for me a journey through great sadness and when at eight o’clock–three hours after my father’s call–I dragged myself out of my apartment in time to take the eight-forty-five, my heart felt heavier than usual. It wasn’t until this year–over thirteen years since my father’s death–that I have been able to take that ride without that horrible sick feeling tugging at the pit of my stomach. Sometimes I wonder where it has gone.
It was a hot summer day, muggy and dirty, and Penn Station felt like a gigantic oven. As usual, I ended up rushing down the stairs into the dark tunnel, hoping I would be able to make it to the train before its dozens of doors simultaneously slammed shut in my face as they sometimes would, like a conspiracy. Although I was a smoker then, I could never bear to sit in a smoking car of the Long Island Railroad and I had to weave my way through four cars, wrenching open eight sets of heavy sliding doors before I could find a car where everything from the air down to the plastic weave of the seats, was not saturated with the stale odors of tobacco smoke from the rush hour just past. My father had a four-pack-a-day habit. I don’t know how many he averaged during those last years when smoking, along with butter, salt, sugar, coffee and so many of the other things that gave him pleasure were forbidden him. The train going toward Long Island was nearly empty at this time of day, and except for a group of four black women dressed in cotton shifts with scarves tied tightly around their heads–apparently on their way to clean houses in Valley Stream, Lynbrook, East Rockaway, Oceanside, Island Park or Long Beach, I was the only one in the car. I found a pair of seats facing each other, where, after the conductor had collected my ticket and moved on to the next car, I put my feet up and looked out the window and watched the backyards and billboards of Long Island passing by.
What was I thinking about just then, less than six hours before my father was going to die? I was thinking about him. I don’t remember exactly what I was thinking about, but now the image of the ashtray piled high with cigarettes on his desk in his office in the World Trade Center flashes into my mind. I was going through the first of many periods of unemployment and had gone to visit him there to work on my resume. My father, who worked as the advertising manager for the same company for over thirty years, would create grandiose phrases for me to put on this resume that he and my mother dreamed would gain me entry into an illustrious career in publishing or advertising or radio or TV.
The idea of getting a job in business–even in one of those glamorous industries–made me sick to my stomach. This was something my father (who used to say that he “licked stamps and sealed envelopes” for a living) could never understand. Why would a bright, charming girl such as myself want to live a fringe existence? Didn’t I want to participate in “the action and the passion” of my times?
That day he came up with, “Seeking a position where I can learn while growing and grow while learning,” a phrase that made me squirm with embarrassment. But I let Cindy, his secretary, type it up and I didn’t say anything about it, or about the pile of cigarettes in his ashtray. I didn’t say anything either when he took me to look out his window on the fifty-seventh floor (his age just then) to point out the landfill where he told me an apartment complex was to be constructed. He said that he and my mother would move there when it was ready. That way he would be spared the commute, which was becoming more and more difficult for him, and he would be able to continue to work.
I wanted to say, Daddy, I want to be an actress, I want to be a writer, I want to be a waitress, I want to be young. I wanted to say, Daddy, did you smoke all those cigarettes today? Don’t you know they’re bad for your heart? I wanted to say, Daddy, why do you have to keep on planning your life around that job you hate?
That commute on the Long Island Railroad–and all that went with it–encapsulated for me how my father had misspent his life. His mornings began with the harsh, invasive rhythms of WINS News. Then there was the first cigarette of the day, before he even got out of bed, followed by his loud, hacking cough over the bathroom sink as he brushed his teeth. There was never enough time. A breakfast of Kellogg’s Special K and liquid artificial sweetener and skim milk, then one long last gulp of instant coffee (the rattle of the cup against the saucer traveling through the ceiling to my bedroom, where I slept upstairs) and one last long hot drag down to the filter of his Marlboro just as my mother, still in her nightgown, had started honking the horn of the Ford station wagon that she had just backed out of the garage into the street to drive him to the railroad station.
My father always told me that he never minded the commute–he said he enjoyed it. He said that the forty-two-minute ride was the only time he felt truly entitled to relax. He would spend the train ride reading, or doing the London Times crossword puzzle, which he could polish off in less than half an hour. I was always very proud of how smart my father was–how smart and clever and wise. He was handsome, too, like a movie star. When I was in kindergarten, the teacher had had the class bring in pictures of our fathers when they were young. My mother gave me a picture of my father in his army uniform and filled me with pride to see it leaning on the rim of the blackboard along with all the black-and-white photos of the other fathers, none of them half as godlike or beautiful as mine. I was almost as proud of my father’s handsomeness as I was of his charm and elegance and grace. I loved bragging about how he had had the highest Regents average in the history of Far Rockaway High School, and that he knew all of Keats and all of A.E. Houseman by heart.
His friends, too, seemed to have that same aura of refinement, that same sophisticated New York sensibility, that I hoped that I could one day claim for myself. One was a lawyer for movie stars in Hollywood, another was the music critic for the New York Herald Tribune. I always wondered why my father’s friends, none of whom my mother told me were nearly as smart or as talented as he was, had all found their place in the world whereas he had not. The pride I felt in him was always mixed with the painful awareness of how he had wasted his gifts. Whenever I saw him with that group of commuters he called the “five-fifty-niners”–after the loudest, noisiest and most crowded train home–I would be struck by how misplaced my sweet, elegant Daddy was. While they sat sprawled in their seats, their ties undone, their sleeves rolled up, drinking beer and telling dirty jokes and playing gin rummy over a platform of newspapers they had fashioned over their laps, my father sat quietly by the window. I wanted to be like him in every way—in every way except in how he had lived his life.
My father never undid his tie until he had finished his dessert and had assumed his position on the sofa. Years after his death I met his brother Georgie, from whom he had been mysteriously estranged for over thirty years. Georgie’s wife, Molly, did most of the talking during my visit, and one theme she kept harping on was the little known fact that while my father might have been a genius his little brother Georgie was brilliant. She told me how close they were in those early years, and how when they were all living in the Muriel Arms in Far Rockaway my father used to come to their apartment almost every night after dinner. “He didn’t say anything to us–he knew our home was his home–he would just come over and head straight for the couch. That’s the way I always remember him. Lying on his back on our couch. Thinking.”
During those hot summer months in New York the sidewalks themselves seemed to exude a rank sweat, and when I got off the train at Oceanside the memory of the stink of the hot city that I had just left brought something new to my attention: Oceanside had the hint of sea breezes in the air. The quiet struck me too. When I visited my parents I always took the rush hour train; even when I wasn’t working I would never go before the workday was done, for fear of drawing any further attention to my perpetually unemployed state. The station looked very different at this time of day–there were no lines of women in hair curlers and Cadillacs waiting to pick up their husbands; there were no little children running to meet their daddies and proudly relieving them of the load of their briefcases.
Everything was so flat, uncomplicated and quiet. I walked past the dry cleaners on the corner, the yellow brick VFW building, with its American flag blowing gently in the wind, and the telephone poles (the highest things in Oceanside). I passed the maple trees and the rows of houses, all identical to each other except for the color of their shingles and except for the fact that some of the kitchens and living rooms had been installed on the left side, and the others on the right.
My father liked doing things around the house and on Saturdays he would often engage the services of my sister and me; he wired every room of the house with speakers and there was always music playing. He had a big record collection–mostly jazz, and vocalists from the forties and fifties, and musical comedies, and these would keep him company during those endless hours he spent sitting at his desk in the downstairs den, in front of a yellow legal pad and a row of sharpened pencils, writing ads for light fixtures and electrical appliances and window shades.
My sister and I knew all the words to the songs that always filled our house with music and on car trips my father would lead us in sing-alongs, or he would entertain us with songs that he had made up out of the many elaborate stories and legends he would tell us. I loved those stories and it was a long time before I realized that much of the world I loved was fictional.
One of my favorite stories was the one about how my father had lost his belly button on the boardwalk when he was a little boy. He had to look all over for it. He went up and down the boardwalk, and then down the wooden steps to the beach and finally out into the street, asking all the passersby whether or not they had happened to notice a missing belly button anywhere. I can still see the row of jalopies parked near the sandy sidewalk and I can still smell the ocean and I can still feel the thrill of my father finding his belly button, just in time, just when the old man who was selling belly buttons out of a pushcart was about to sell my father’s belly button to a fat, redheaded boy with a row of crooked teeth.
My father had recently pointed out to me that while the other streets in our neighborhood were built on a straight line, ours had a slight curve to it. He told me that it always gave him pleasure driving along that curve and seeing how the trees had all grown up so nicely. We were on our way back from the funeral of his secretary’s mother. My mother had to stay in the city to go to the dentist, and I went along with him to keep him company until Queens, where he was going to drop me off at the F train, and I would take the subway back to my apartment on East 33rd Street. But it made me so happy just to be with him; I wanted to stay with him longer, so I told him that I had to go home to pick up some job-hunting clothes. I know he was happy to be with me too because when we pulled into the driveway we sat in the car for a few minutes, finishing up our conversation, and he told me that I was a pleasure to be with and that it was a gift to be such good company.
In front of Boche Kaplan’s house, I realized that I had forgotten my key. Boche was an artist who always dressed in men’s shirts and slacks, which made her an anomaly in Oceanside. One year she and my mother designed a Japanese rock garden together in the little patch of land that separate our two houses, but within less than six months the weeds and stray blades of grass started peeking through the pebbles. I lingered there for a while to see if I could find any of the thousands of white pebbles that Ruth and I had towed away from the swamp in our toy wheelbarrow years before, but not a single one of them remained. All those pebbles, every one of them, had been brushed away by the wind and the rain and the snow, or pulled into the ground by the dandelions and weeds and grass that now covered Boche and my mother’s handiwork.
Boche’s husband Max died a year after my father did. He was in the hospital for two months in intensive care and Boche and her daughter Lisa slept in the city that whole time on a sleeper sofa in her nephew Joel’s apartment. Max Kaplan was a very nice man; we seemed to have a special affinity for each other, I think partly because we both shared the same funny name. The only thing I remember about those seven days we sat shiva for my father was the look in Max’s eyes, staring at me as I sat crying on my little cardboard box. Of all the friends and relatives who stopped by to pay their condolences that week, and to eat the food my Aunt Selma had supplied in such abundance, Max’s was the only face I can recall seeing; his was the only face I managed to bring into focus. He looked so sad for me, and worried too. Max had already had two heart attacks by that time. It occurs to me now that perhaps he wasn’t thinking about me at all just then; perhaps he was thinking about his own children and how he wouldn’t be around to help them, and see their lives take shape. Max was the next in the long line of deaths of husbands of our neighborhood, of which my father led the pack. After a brief reprieve of less than a year, one by one, the husbands and fathers all started to die, all of heart attacks, and all before the age of sixty.
With each new death a widow was born. My brother named these widows the “newlywids”; all of them, even those living in the Ocean Lee Housing Development ten blocks away, would seek out my mother for comfort and guidance. She was the pioneer, and for this reason, I suppose, the expert. It got to the point that whenever word would come to our house of another man’s death my mother would throw her hands up in the air and groan, “Why me?”
My mother always hated it when I forgot my key. It was just one of the many signs of how irresponsible I was. Bracing myself for a scolding, I rang the bell. Soon, I heard the familiar thump-thump-thumping down the stairs. When she opened the door, I was relieved to see that she wasn’t in a combative frame of mind. Her curly brown hair was mashed in ringlets against her head and she was wearing a pink nightgown with puffy sleeves. She looked remarkably like the adorable little girl whose pictures were packed away in cartons in the upstairs crawlspace that Ruth and I would spend hours looking through, and as I followed her wobbly climb up the stairs I began to look forward to spending the day with her.
Even more than my father, my mother deplored my lack of direction, and she was relentless in her efforts to correct it. She would call me every morning at eight and, with the sleep still in her voice, she would ask me to recount my plans for the day. At eight o’clock I was still in the delicious depths of my morning sleep, but I always knew it was my mother calling, so I would shout a bright hello into the receiver to camouflage any signs of grogginess. I always managed to come up with one account or another of a day filled with job-hunting activities.
“Hurry up,” she said to me in her cute baby voice as she wobbled faster up the stairs. Top Hat’s just about to begin.”
My mother has always been a big movie fan, and Fred Astaire was her favorite movie star. Whenever one of his movies was on television, she would let us stay up and watch, no matter how late it was, as long as it wasn’t a school night. During commercials she would tell us stories about what a bad girl she was when she was growing up. She bleached her hair. She smoked cigarettes. She played hooky from school with her girlfriends and spent the day at the movies or at one of her friends’ houses playing bridge. She was always very popular, always the leader, and she seemed to take special pride in this and in the fact that she could make anyone feel at ease.
Edward Everett Horton was trying to explain to room service that he wanted a raw steak delivered to Fred Astaire’s suite when my father phoned for the first time that day. It was his habit to call my mother from his office several times a day; there was always something he had to tell her or something he wanted to talk about. When she got off the phone she reported to me that Daddy had just gotten the idea of contacting an old army buddy of his, Abe Jacobson. He was very excited about it, she told me. Abe Jacobson was a doctor and my father said he was one of the smartest men he had ever known. He was going to ask Abe to refer him to a heart specialist. If anyone would know of a good doctor, Abe would.
For some reason my parents seemed to think that if only they could find the right doctor, everything would be all right. They used to visit the offices of cardiologists as though embarking on the most scholarly of research expeditions. My father took the notes while my mother asked questions, which they had organized on index cards, along with lists of my father’s symptoms, and lists of the doctors they’d already been to see, and lists of the medications each of them had prescribed for him, and the various diagnoses he had received.
The second time my father called, my mother and I were busy lying side by side on her bed comparing our legs. We both have the same heavy muscular legs–Russian peasant legs–and a game of ours was for one of us to hold up her right leg and the other the left and pretend that it was a complete pair. This time my father was calling to report that he had gotten in touch with Abe Jacobson’s wife. She said that Abe would be busy at the hospital all day but that she would tell him to call as soon as he got home. My mother didn’t have to report this conversation to me. My father’s voice was so charged with excitement that every word he said traveled over to where I lay next to her on the bed.
The third time my father called I answered the phone. He didn’t seem to be happy the way he usually was to hear my voice; he wasn’t friendly to me at all. He started right in about my resume, and what I was doing about looking for a job.
“Daddy’s ready to start taking care of himself,” my mother announced to me after she hung up the phone. “I think he’s finally getting scared.”
The fourth time the phone rang, I was also the one to pick it up. This time it was Artie Singer, my father’s boss. I knew Artie, but he didn’t bother to ask how I was; instead he asked to speak to my mother. She was on the phone for less than a second, it seemed, and then she was out of bed, throwing off her nightgown and rummaging through her drawer for underwear. “Don’t dawdle, Maxine,” she said to me from behind her tight jaw. “Hurry up. We have to get out of here right away.” But she hadn’t even finished zipping up the back of her skirt before the phone started ringing again. It kept on ringing as she finished dressing and it was still ringing when we left the house and I think I could still hear it ringing when we closed the door and got into the car. This is all I remember about the day my father died. Everything after that is just a blur.